Pass the Baton: Write Your Memoir
The recent popular film Sully was based on Capt. Sullenberger’s account of his ordeal, a memoir of the 2009 aircraft mishap known as the Miracle on the Hudson. His reason for writing it was truth. There was a threat that truth would be overcome by industrial propaganda. And, so his version has been preserved. This is only one good reason to write a memoir.
The stories told in oral tradition and memoirs were cultural adhesives long before the average person could read or write. Today we are fortunate to be able to capture our memoirs in various formats that can be preserved and interpreted easily. Various media can be used to preserve and protect the truth of our experiences and pass those truths along to the next generation. There is no need to be in a specific place at a specific time to absorb the memory, we can tune in from anywhere and at anytime. This ability is becoming ever more important as we are deluged with more data in the past 50 years than at any time in history. Yet, the raw data is ever less helpful to making decisions.
Carry Culture Along
Long ago, the Israelites were faced with enslavement, wars, finding a promised land to settle. In their time they were faced with significant social challenges that could have profoundly changed their culture. The journey would take them far from home and tradition. They had strengths in oral history and religious beliefs that prevented diaspora from destroying them as chaff in the wind. Moses told them: “Do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” (DEUT 4:9) This is a tradition inherited by all the people of the Book.
In our own age, the United States was populated by wave after wave of immigrants that left native lands seeking a better life for themselves and their families, without shedding all of their cultural values and traditions. The waves of immigrants have not stopped and there has been room for both sharing what is best to forge a new and common culture while preserving something of inherited traits, values and character. In order to see clearly where one is heading, it is important to know where one has been and why change was necessary. There is room to grow and mature in the United States, room to breathe. The space has formed our unique character in our place and time. That is one of our gifts. An eminent American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that all history was really biography. History is forged from the character of the people and the events experienced. The future is crafted by people who survive new experiences daily. The values acquired by their forbears and passed to them, inform the decisions required to survive and build something better.
Migrating to the New World
One of valuable lesson of the migration history has been that no matter where one lives or what the country of origin, part, perhaps just a small part, is carried along. This is true even if it is not possible to carry much, as in migrations caused by natural disaster. Perhaps this is one more thing that causes Americans to be recognizable. We carry parts of many cultures. Others see something familiar in us. Though conflicts arise, we have generally devised ways of resolving those conflicts so that we live peacefully together. This capacity is passed to us through the history of what was tried and proven or what failed before. If we don’t pass on this history, the next generation has hundreds of choices uninformed by cultural values and norms. Adults as well as children learn through stories and many human cultures value a good story. The shared composite immigrant story gives us a different perspective, we can empathize with other cultures and nations. Whether we turn empathy into action is an informed decision.
I’m not a fan of Dr. Jeremiah, but he speaks aptly of memoirs……”Peter replied, ‘I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation He accepts those who fear him and do what is right.” (Bible Continues, Book of Acts, Dr. David Jeremiah, Tyndale Publishers, www.tyndale.com, p 65)
Larger than life examples of preserving and passing on the truth of experiences, the decisions to do right and good toward others can be found just scratching the surface of recent history. At the end of World War II, Five Star General (and later president) Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered hundreds of soldiers to view the Nazi concentrations camps and record their horrors for future generations (within their own families and circles) because without those memoirs there was predictable risk that such depravity would someday be denied. And, today, yes we’ve heard it denied. (destined to lead) Without the memoirs passed along so that generations can decide for themselves, it is possible to allow something similar to happen again. We have to remember history in the context of our culture to make moral decisions. Seeing is believing. Tell your children. Writing memoirs is certainly a powerful tool when mobility has given us vast territories to cross.
The vast territories reduce the ability to tell stories face to face and cause a certain internal sense of migration. One can’t pass along what one doesn’t know or no longer remembers. Family history, oral history and memoirs can help with discovery and understanding of who we are in terms of value and culture. The mobile society has many positive qualities but threatens our sense of place and time. Assimilation promotes massive cultural change, again threatening our sense of place and time. A tendency to have children later in life means that there may not be an automatically common history. Written memoirs are tools that help sift and strain the deluge of random daily news data to yield information helpful to necessary decisions.
And, speaking of daily news………. Written memoirs help to preserve the truth from the perspective of those who were there, who actually saw the events and who were possibly the actors. In days when the government has its own language called gov-speak and the media is biased by interests that fund them, there is a new dimension to staying informed about current events to be sure. Both sides in the U.S. Civil War, established a separate government, published numerous articles, edicts, laws and hired the journalists of the day to document events. We recognize many “truths” of that great conflict. But, photography came into its own as another means of preservation. The truth was preserved in those captured images. We’d not yet learned to alter them. The truth may also be found in the letters home and battlefield memoirs. So many of these records were preserved on both sides that today the conflict can be studied in detail. So no, we don’t have to reach far to find reasons to pass on to the next generation the memory of events. It’s more important than ever to differentiate between documentation and propaganda. The memoir of a truthful person is reliable documentation no matter how small the event.
Dialogue and Debate
Informed dialogue and debate contributes to decisions that are socially just. Arriving at socially just decisions is an objective of critical thought. Critical thinking requires rational analysis of data based on shared values, experience and previous outcomes. (We tried “this” before….and it really was a success or it failed miserably.) Critical thought means the difference between morally right and politically correct. Is it possible to make an appropriate decision without an innate understanding of the history that others have lived and the values they have left? How will future generations understand history without the explanations of past generations? One by one, decision by decision, these explanations can be preserved in written memoirs.
Right now, there are hundreds of seniors in the neighborhood, your social circle, church, club, veteran’s homes, hospitals and even front porches that have a story to tell. There may be seniors who have chosen to return to the workforce and will tell their stories there. The caregivers of seniors suffering from dementia know that even the fragments of memory create a story. (Larry VendeCreek, ed. What Everyone Should Know About Dementia). These are worth collecting and passing along. Encourage them to write a memoir of a specific event or an autobiography of their life. There is truth in their observations that can contribute to informed decisions but only if shared.
To paraphrase a popular sound bite ……..Every Life Matters.